Through the remainder of the year, I am going to recount some of my most memorable experiences/moments in racing over the past 40 years. Some will be recycled from past columns (at least 3 years old for those who didn’t read them the first time) with new material added. Some, such as this, will be long, but that should be expected from this often verbose column. We begin with Rachel Alexandra’s victory in the 2009 Woodward Stakes to kick off Saratoga’s 150th anniversary. Future columns will include Dr. Fager and Damascus in the 1968 Suburban/Brooklyn, Cigar at Madison Square Garden, a visit with Secretariat’s old grooms from Meadow Farm, Zenyatta the day after the 2010 Breeders’ Cup, Forego’s 1977 Woodward, Da Hoss’ Miracle Mile, Arazi’s long-awaited arrival at Churchill Downs for the 1992 Kentucky Derby, the saga of Canonero II, yet again, Touch Gold’s 1997 Belmont Stakes, Smarty Jones’ open houses at Philly Park, and more. This is what is known as PTCS (Post Triple Crown Syndrome).
Another Saratoga meet had passed into history, and all eyes were now on Belmont Park’s Super Saturday. But the one star who would have truly made it super was missing. Rachel Alexandra, racing’s reigning monarch had days earlier been forced to abdicate her throne and was now preparing to depart for another life.
The autumn leaves, in different shades of browns and yellows, were already falling in upstate New York. The Oklahoma training track was quiet, seemingly a million miles away from the cheers that greeted New York‘s own, Haynesfield, following his stirring victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. A little over an hour earlier, Life At Ten, who had finished more than 10 lengths behind Rachel Alexandra in the Personal Ensign Stakes, was being led into the winner’s circle with little fanfare after a workmanlike victory in the Beldame Stakes, a race Rachel had been pointing for.
There would be even less fanfare several days later as Rachel bid farewell to the racetrack and embarked on her journey to Kentucky and life as a broodmare. There were no trumpet calls, no banners waving, no cheering crowds. Those days were gone. It is unfortunate that Rachel’s adoring fans never got a chance to give her a proper goodbye. The last sounds Rachel should have heard were the cheers that had been so familiar to her in 2009 and on occasion in 2010.
Instead, she left Saratoga in silence. It had been some 13 months since those old rafters rocked like they had never rocked before. Thinking back to that emotion-filled September afternoon when Rachel Alexandra left part of herself on the Saratoga stretch, it was as if her 2010 campaign never happened. Misguided from the beginning, it surely will fade from memory with time. But even in her narrow defeats, Rachel never stopped giving her all, battling to the wire against foes she would have left reeling the year before.
The clouds that enshrouded her 4-year-old season will quickly dissipate, bringing clarity to a 2009 tour de force that likely will never be equaled by a 3-year-old filly.
And for as long as racing fans flock to Saratoga in droves each year, that final triumph in the Woodward Stakes will remain frozen in time, as will the deafening roar that greeted Rachel Alexandra following her gut-wrenching victory. Racing’s grand old lady has experienced many great moments in 145 years, but never has she been engulfed by such an eruption of sound as she was on this day.
But it came at a price. The Woodward would claim not only the victor, but those who dared to challenge her. Rachel would go on to win other races, but we would never again see that same grace and devastating power and the sheer joy of running we witnessed in the spring and summer of 2009.
As then 97-year-old racing legend John Nerud pointed out. “They sent two speed horses after her and made her go in :22 4/5, then they came after her one at a time and she put them all away. Those were tough older horses and they tried everything they could to get her beat and they couldn’t. I think she’s the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t compare her to anyone.”
The skeptics will point out that Macho Again and Bullsbay were just ordinary horses, and defeating them did nothing to boost Rachel’s reputation. A good deal of that skepticism was based on what they did, or didn’t do, after the Woodward. What they didn’t realize was that the horses who entered the starting gate to face Rachel in the Woodward were far different than the shattered fragments that remained after they looked Rachel in the eye. Macho Again and third-place finisher Bullsbay raced a total of 10 more times and managed only one second-place finish by the latter.
Macho Again went into the Woodward having won the Stephen Foster Handicap and New Orleans Handicap and the previous year’s Jim Dandy Stakes, and Derby Trial Stakes with rousing stretch runs, and was second in the Preakness and Super Derby. He came into the Woodward off a fast-closing second to Bullsbay in the Whitney, run in a sharp 1:48 flat for the 1 1/8 miles. Bullsbay had finished a close fourth, beaten 1 ¼ lengths, in the Stephen Foster and had won the Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs. In the Whitney, his explosive of turn of foot, in which he went from 11 lengths back to the lead, was one of the highlights of the meet.
Also in the Woodward, making a threatening move on the far turn, was Asiatic Boy, the first horse ever to sweep the United Arab Emirates Triple Crown. He also was second in the Dubai World Cup to Curlin, second in the Stephen Foster to Macho Again, finishing ahead of Einstein, and second in the Suburban Handicap. Past the Point, who looked Rachel in the eye after she seemingly had been softened up by Da’ Tara and Cool Coal Man, had put a scare in Horse of the Year Curlin in the previous year’s Woodward, pulling up to his flank in the stretch, only to be beaten 1 1/4 lengths.
All these horses went into the Woodward coming off a win or a second. All made their moves at Rachel at some point, and none were ever the same. This was a race that gutted Rachel and all those who challenged her. Rachel gave every ounce of her being, turning back one challenge after another in testing fractions, and who knows in the long run how much of her heart spilled out onto the Saratoga track that day.
What made her victory even more impressive was that it was her eighth of the year, at seven different racetracks, and ninth in succession, including victories over the colts in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational.
It was her bravery in battle at the end of one of the most ambitious 3-year-old campaigns in the history of the sport that truly defined her greatness and set off the wave of emotion that greeted her after the race and the pandemonium that engulfed all those standing on the racetrack.
It was that same bravery that had her trainer, Steve Asmussen, weeping in his wife Julie’s arms, as he buried his head in her embrace. When his oldest son, Keith, said to him, “I’ve never seen you cry at the races,” Asmussen replied, “I never needed to.”
And it was that bravery that had her exercise rider Dominic Terry bawling behind his sunglasses and walking around in a daze, repeating, “She did it…she did it…she did it.” The following morning, he still was “physically and mentally exhausted.”
Noted veterinarian Dr. Mark Cheney said, “You don’t see many horses livin’ that could have won that race.”
Even the vanquished became caught up in the enormity of Rachel’s achievement. “She had everything thrown at her and she overcame it all,” said Graham Motion, trainer of Bullsbay. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You had that feeling of a horse trying for the Triple Crown. It’s the stuff of legends.”
Motion spoke as he and his wife Anita were driving away from the test barn and heading back to their barn a short distance away. Remaining behind was their 12-year-old daughter Jane, who was waiting patiently outside the gates of the test barn with camera in hand.
“She’s not worried about my horse,” Motion said jokingly. “She wants to stay and see the filly.”
All Jane wanted was one photo of Rachel Alexandra. “I just want to show my friends,” she said.
Rachel Alexandra will forever remain a part of Saratoga history. Prior to the Woodward, there were signs all along Broadway, reading, “Rachel Alexandra: Run Like a Girl.”
Saratoga mayor Scott T. Johnson proclaimed Sept. 5, 2009 “Rachel Alexandra Day.” Two days before the Woodward, Rachel received a huge ovation when she schooled in the paddock, as a horde of photographers, cameramen, and onlookers followed after her like a pack of paparazzi. All Asmussen could say was, “She’s a deserving diva.”
On race day, fans began lining up to secure their place around the paddock and along the path leading to the paddock several races before the Woodward. As the race approached, the cheers could be heard well off in the distance, signifying Rachel’s imminent arrival.
“I’ve walked over for a lot of big races – the Dubai World Cup, the Triple Crown races, last year’s Woodward,” said assistant Scott Blasi. “I have never felt that kind of adoration for one horse. I’m talking about people 10 deep on both sides walking to the paddock, and all they want to do is get a glimpse of her. If anyone thinks people don’t love horse racing they should have been in my shoes walking to the paddock.”
Asmussen added, “I’ve never seen them lined up like that. It was like a soccer game where everybody is pressed up against each other to get a look. When we walked Curlin over last year it was a big deal, but it wasn’t anything like this. They were three and four deep for Curlin, and they were at least 10 deep just to get a peek at her.”
As the field approached the starting gate, majority owner Jess Jackson took a final sip of his beverage and stared intently at his filly, as his wife, Barbara Banke, held her hand against the side of her face and continuously rocked back and forth in her seat. Several boxes away, an intense Asmussen leaned forward and sat there motionless while Julie clasped her hands together and rested them against her lips. They were well aware that Rachel was only nine furlongs away from entrance into the pantheon of the immortals.
A roar went up from the crowd of almost 32,000 as the field broke from the gate.
The race itself was amazing in that just about every horse in the field took a run at Rachel. First it was 2008 Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara, then his hard-knocking stablemate Cool Coal Man, who was coming off a 12 3/4-length romp in the Albert the Great Stakes. It was apparent from the start that Rachel had the proverbial bullseye on her back, and one by one, the darts were being hurled at her.
After a brutal opening quarter in :22 4/5, track announcer Tom Durkin bellowed, “There’ll be no free ride for Rachel Alexandra. They’re making her work for every step today.”
In the stands, Jackson’s bloodstock agent John Moynihan, like many, had a sinking feeling. “I put my program down and put my head in my hands,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘How could this have happened today?”
When Da’ Tara and Cool Coal Man began their rapid retreats following a half in :46 2/5, Past the Point took his run at Rachel, the three-quarters in a testing in 1:10 2/5. Rachel thwarted that bid, and then came the big final assault. Bullsbay, who was so explosive in the Whitney, pulled up to her flank turning for home, as Asiatic Boy and Macho Again moved in for the kill, expecting to encounter a softened up Rachel in the final furlong.
Rachel was set down by Calvin Borel, who hit her five times right-handed and then three times left-handed. She turned back Bullsbay’s challenge, but here came a fresh Macho Again, who had found a gaping hole at the top of the stretch. The charging gray stormed up alongside Rachel, who was now being barraged with a series of 13 desperate right-handed whips from Borel. Macho Again kept coming, but Rachel kept finding more. The crowd urged Rachel to hold on, their hearts pounding with every stride.
Rachel continued to dig in and would not let Macho Again get by. This was a filly who had won all her races eased up with her ears pricked, never feeling to sting of the whip. Now she had her ears pinned and was under a salvo of left and right-handed whips by a frantic Borel. Rachel would not be denied, hitting the wire a head in front. The place went crazy. Despite her early efforts, she still was able to close her final eighth in a respectable :12 4/5 to complete the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 1/5, earning a 109 Beyer speed figure – this coming after a grueling campaign that saw her run a 108 Beyer in the Kentucky Oaks, a 108 in the Preakness, a 111 in the Mother Goose, and a monster 116 in the Haskell Invitational.
Rachel’s time still is the fastest Woodward in the seven years it’s been run at Saratoga – faster than Curlin, Quality Road, Lawyer Ron, Havre de Grace, Premium Tap, and To Honor and Serve.
Rachel returned to a deafening ovation, which reached a crescendo when a jubilant Borel led the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro into the winner’s circle. After the photo, Borel draped the blanket of pink carnations over his shoulder and dismounted.
Rachel Alexandra had become the first filly to win the Woodward. The last 3-year-old filly to even run in the race was Summer Guest in 1972. This was the equivalent of a 23-year-old girl beating 30-something males. No 3-year-old filly had ever defeated older males in a two-turn, grade I dirt race. The last to win a major two-turn dirt stakes over her elders was Misty Morn in the 1955 Gallant Fox Handicap.
As Rachel was led back to the barn and the crowd began to quiet down, Durkin announced, “Well, folks, if your heart can take it, we’ve got two more races.”
Jackson, who owned Rachel in partnership with Harold McCormick, summed it up best: “I think she’s something for the ages. The 56th running of the Woodward was a great one for the history books, and I’m so pleased for her. For her to hang in there like that with six giant males racing with her was something special.”
Asmussen said the early fractions “may have taken a few years off my life but it was probably worth it.”
After signing dozens of autographs, Asmussen hopped over the fence of the jockey’s quarters and headed to the test barn, receiving congratulations the entire way.
“You deserve all the accolades,” one person shouted. “No, she does,” Asmussen replied.
As he walked, he was able to reflect a bit more on what Rachel had achieved: “It’s hard enough to be brilliant once in a while, but every race? Oh, my God, she’s been doing it since mid-February. She showed she’s truly a champion today. I get nervous, I admit it. I wouldn’t go downstairs until they put her number up; that’s me.”
As Rachel left the test barn and crossed Union Ave. to the Oklahoma training track, the halted traffic was already backed up and a few lucky fans in the front cars were able to get a final look at Rachel as she headed home.
Back at the barn, Rachel was put away for the night, picking away at her alfalfa and occasionally eyeing all the activity outside the barn.
Jackson took great pride in having orchestrated a good portion of Rachel’s perfect season, in which she became the first filly to win three grade I races on dirt against males in a single year. “I’ve made more money as a handicapper than I did as a lawyer,” he said. “We kept looking for a better target and we kept finding one.”
As he was about to leave for dinner, Jackson said, “There’s an aura around her, isn’t there? It was quite a day. I think I’ll have a double scotch tonight.”
As darkness fell, assistant trainer Blasi tried to put everything in perspective. “She’s absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “There’s no comparing her to anyone. They all compare to her now. What she did today, you will never see anything like it again.”
The following morning, Asmussen arrived around 5:30 to find Rachel sprawled out in her stall. After she got up, Asmussen had the urge to lavish some affection on her but thought better of it.
“I’m a big sap, and I wanted to hug her,” he said. “And she was like, ‘Get away from me you big sap.’ She’s game on. She don’t belong in a petting zoo. I’m just proud as hell, but I’m happy for racing. The fans walked out of the grandstand smiling and not everyone walks out of the races smiling.”
And how did the Asmussens celebrate the night before? “We ordered out and watched the DVD of the race repeatedly,” he said. “And we just talked about how lucky we are to be around her.”
Rachel’s greatness was defined in many ways, including the remarkable statistics she compiled
Throughout 2009, Rachel constantly was flattered by horses she has trounced. Gabby's Golden Gal was beaten 29 1/4 lengths by Rachel in the Kentucky Oaks and came back to win the grade I Acorn Stakes in 1:34 3/5. Flashing was beaten 31 1/2 lengths by Rachel in the Mother Goose and came back to win the grade I Test Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths. Summer Bird was beaten six lengths by Rachel in the Haskell and came back to win the Travers Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Take the Points was beaten 32 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Preakness and came back to win the grade I Secretariat Stakes. Just Jenda was beaten 11 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Fantasy Stakes and came back to win the Monmouth Oaks by 4 1/4 lengths.
Bon Jovi Girl, beaten 14 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Fantasy Stakes, came back to win the Susan’s Girl Stakes by eight lengths and place in the then grade II Cotillion Stakes and the grade I Gazelle Stakes. Malibu Prayer, beaten 19 1/4 lengths in the Mother Goose, went on to win the Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs, an overnight stakes at Belmont by 6 3/4 lengths, and finish second in the Delaware Oaks and Monmouth Oaks. In 2010, she won the grade I Ruffian Handicap. Past the Point, beaten 17 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the Woodward, came right back to finish second, beaten a half-length, in the grade III Bold Ruler Stakes. Although Munnings, beaten seven lengths in the Haskell, did not win a subsequent stakes, he did finish third in the grade I King’s Bishop and Vosburgh over sloppy tracks before being retired. Even Sara Louise, who was beaten 4 3/4 lengths by Rachel in the previous year’s Golden Rod, won the grade III Victory Ride Stakes at Saratoga in 1:09 3/5 in her 3-year-old debut and then captured the grade II Ladies Handicap.
In 2009 alone she:
Defeated eight Derby winners (Kentucky Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, Illinois Derby, Tampa Bay Derby, Iowa Derby, and UAE Derby), plus the runner-up in the West Virginia Derby.
Defeated eight grade I-winning males, including the winners of the Belmont Stakes (twice), Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, Stephen Foster, Blue Grass, and Secretariat Stakes, as well as the winners of the Oaklawn Handicap, New Orleans Handicap, Jim Dandy Stakes, Tom Fool Handicap. Woody Stephens Stakes, and Lone Star Handicap.
Became the first filly to defeat three classic-winning males, and defeated the 1-2-3 finishers of the Kentucky Derby, the 1-2 finishers of the Whitney , the 1-2 finishers of the Stephen Foster, and the 1-3 finishers of the Belmont Stakes.
Her last six victories in 2009 all had historical significance.
Fantasy Stakes -- Biggest margin in the history of the race (8 3/4 lengths).
Kentucky Oaks -- Biggest margin in the history of the race (20 1/4 lengths).
Preakness -- First filly to win the Preakness in 85 years and the first horse in history to win from post 13.
Mother Goose -- Biggest margin in the history of the race (19 1/4 lengths), previously held by Ruffian, and ran the fastest time in the history of the race (1:46 1/5) -- I cannot recall ever seeing a horse run so fast (four-fifths off Secretariat’s track and then-American record) so easily, with the possible exception of Dr. Fager’s world record mile at Arlington.
Haskell -- Second biggest margin in the history of the race (six lengths), and second fastest time (1:47 1/5) in the history of the race by one fifth of a second, and two fifths of a second off the track record set by Spend a Buck 24 years earlier.
Woodward -- First filly in history to win the Woodward, and ran the fastest time since the race was moved to Saratoga.
Even winning the Woodward by a head and the Preakness by one length, Rachel’s average margin of victory in 2009 was an astounding 8 1/4 lengths.
People, of course, will remember Rachel for her devastating victories in the Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose, her classic score in the Preakness, and her romp in the Haskell. But what truly defined Rachel’s greatness was her courageous victory in the Woodward at the end of an ambitious, unprecedented campaign.
No one will ever know for sure what toll the Woodward took on her. There is no doubt she was not the same horse in 2010, and there is no denying the fact that, although she remained in Asmussen’s barn over the winter, she did not have a single work in five months.
We can only speculate just how much of her she left on the track that day. But there’s one thing that is certain. She left behind a moment in history.
In “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Hemingway asks, “But did thee feel the earth move?
Just ask those at Saratoga on Sept. 5, 2009.